Amid protests sweeping National Women’s Soccer League, OL Reign clinches playoff berth

Amid protests sweeping National Women’s Soccer League, OL Reign clinches playoff berth

For the second consecutive season, National Women’s Soccer League players are using on-field demonstrations to force society to examine itself.

Last year, teams began kneeling during the national anthem in solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement. On Sunday, OL Reign and the Chicago Red Stars were the last of the 10-team league to stop play for a moment of silence.

Players from both sides linked arms at Cheney Stadium’s center circle to recognize the six years it took for former players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim’s allegations of sexual coercion and verbal harassment against former coach Paul Riley to be heard. The Athletic published details in an article Sept. 30, which had a massive fallout within the league, causing all NWSL matches last weekend to be postponed and players in other countries such as Venezuela and Australia to speak up of the abuse they’ve suffered.

“We shouldn’t have to worry about this at all,” Reign forward Ally Watt said. “It’s common sense. I don’t get how it’s an issue. We’re here to play soccer; we’re here to play for each other. We shouldn’t have to have all of these other battles on the side.”

Sunday was the Reign’s first match since the allegations were made public. Defender Lu Barnes called the demonstrations powerful and felt it would inspire her team, many already using soccer to work through off-field issues.

After the 3-2 win, Barnes admitted the match was hard to play.

“It’s taken a big mental toll. I saw it in my performance,” Barnes said. “Because it’s not just an individual sport. If I’m not playing as well as I should be, I have 22 other people around me to kind of pick me up and keep me going. That’s what’s been incredible about this group. We’ve been able to have each other’s back regardless of the situation. We’ve just really pushed through.”

Players wore black T-shirts with the surnames of Farrelly, Shim and Kaiya McCullough, the latter calling out racism within the league after alleging verbal and emotional abuse from former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke, who was fired after allegations surfaced.

Riley, who denied all allegations, was fired from his post with the North Carolina Courage. He and Burke were among four coaches and one executive since July to be accused of either sexual harassment, racism and/or homophobia. Former Reign coach Farid Benstiti was asked to resign after making inappropriate comments during a team meeting.

Utilizing the hashtag #NoMoreSilence, the NWSL Players Association on Oct. 6 tweeted eight demands they hope will push the 9-year-old league toward systemic change. FIFA, U.S. Soccer, NWSL executives and the NWSLPA have opened investigations into the league, the players calling for leadership members who were involved, including OL Reign minority owner and CEO Bill Predmore, to step down until told otherwise.

The NWSLPA gave all coaches, general managers, representatives of the board of governors and owners until Wednesday to voluntarily submit to their independent investigation.

“It’s the past two years, it’s not even what’s been happening right now,” Barnes said. “A lot of us are just trying to maintain.”

Chicago scored first. Kealia Watt beat Barnes to the ball just outside the box to send a cross to Red Stars forward Mallory Pugh center of goal. Reign keeper Sarah Bouhaddi was slow to react, watching the ball nestle into the back of the net in the 14th minute.

Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock opened up her brace with a gorgeous, 40-yard strike in the 31st minute to level the match. She followed the play in the 35th minute with a running header at the goal line off an assist from Sophia Huerta to take a 2-1 lead into halftime.

“We were actually pretty upset with how we played the first 45 minutes,” Barnes said. “Jess scored two beautiful goals, but that wasn’t the issue at the moment. We can celebrate now.”

In the second half, new addition in midfielder Rose Lavelle scored her first goal as a Reign player in the 51st minute. Huerta had the feed, cutting the ball back to Lavelle outside the box.

Red Stars defender Tatumn Milazzo scored off a rebound in the 69th minute to keep the match close. But Chicago (8-8-5) couldn’t level the match.

Watt gave the Reign a bump in energy. She substituted into the game in the 80th minute. It was her first run since tearing her ACL in her NWSL debut in June 2020.

“For someone who’s been out of the game for as long as Ally has, go out and enjoy it. Show everybody what they’ve been missing,” said Reign coach Laura Harvey of her message to Watt, who had an attempt hit the post in the 85th minute.

“You saw her enthusiasm to that,” Harvey continued. “The expectation for Ally was that we wouldn’t see her on the field this season and that was OK. We were OK with that. In the event that we could get her on the field would be an absolute bonus. Credit to her, since she got the all-clear on being able to train properly, every single training session she’s gotten better and better.”

Sunday’s win secured a postseason berth for the Reign (12-7-2). The Bold is a point behind first-place Portland Thorns FC in the NWSL standings. The sides will play their Cascadia derby on Wednesday in Portland. The match was rescheduled from last week.

Harvey said striker Megan Rapinoe has returned to training and could be available against the Thorns.

But also looming is the NWSLPA deadline.

“Sadly, it’s just bare minimum safety that we’re trying to talk about,” Barnes said. “After nine years, those things should’ve been in place. … Our safety should never have been at risk. Ever.”

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